The 5 Biggest Storylines Heading into Denver Broncos Training Camp
The Denver Broncos open training camp at Dove Valley on July 25.
The Broncos have a lot of expectations following a 13-3 season that fell short of the ultimate goal—winning the Lombardi Trophy.
And, as luck would have it, the Broncos open the 2013 season against the team that stunned them in the Divisional Round of last year's postseason—the Baltimore Ravens.
The Broncos have a plethora of newcomers from free agency and the draft: Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Montee Ball.
With all six of those additions, the Broncos either filled vacant starting positions or shored up depth.
The Broncos definitely improved on paper, but will these offseason additions, combined with the motivation of not winning a Super Bowl last year, result in the Broncos reaching their ultimate goal this season?
How Will the Broncos Rebound from Last Year's Playoff Loss?
You know how the Broncos' season ended prematurely at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs?
The Broncos get a chance to redeem themselves and wipe their slate clean—in the season opener.
Yes, the Broncos open their season on Sept. 5 against the team that gave the Denver franchise one of its worst losses ever.
The two teams headed in different directions during the offseason—with Denver retaining most of its core from 2012, while adding new pieces. Baltimore on the other hand, replaced nearly half of its starting lineup from last year's Super Bowl team, mostly with free agents—including former Bronco Elvis Dumervil.
Other than Dumervil defecting to Baltimore and how the Denver bounces back from last year's playoff disaster, the storyline to watch is how the Broncos look with the new pieces they did manage to add.
Wes Welker will be in the slot. Rodgers-Cromartie will likely start opposite of Champ Bailey. Ball might get the starting running back job. Two new defensive tackles, Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, will take over the interior of the Broncos line.
The one thing that needs to take place in the season opener game versus the Ravens? Denver needs to wipe the monkey off of its back from last year's playoff defeat.
And there is no better way in doing that than stomping the defending Super Bowl champions at Mile High in the season opener.
Wes Welker's Impact
A lot has been made of the impact that Wes Welker will have on the passing game.
As Tom Brady's go-to target over the past six years, Welker established himself as not only the best slot receiver in the game. He was also the most consistent wide receiver of the past half-decade, averaging 112 receptions per season from 2007-2012.
There shouldn't be a question—as some Denver fans have—as to how the Broncos will spread the ball among so many quality receivers. Peyton Manning will have no problem diversifying his targets among his receiving corps. He managed the same "problem" for years in Indianapolis.
The question should be how the wealth at wide receiver will impact the running game.
Having Welker on the field it force opposing defenses to play even more nickel than last year, which should open running lanes for Bronco tailbacks.
That's a good problem to have.
Who Will Win the Running Back Job?
The biggest and most featured position battle for the Denver Broncos entering training camp will be the battle at starting running back.
The competition features three runners—rookie Montee Ball, second-year man Ronnie Hillman and veteran Knowshon Moreno.
Hillman added a new wrinkle to this competition when he told Jeff Legwold of the The Denver Post, "Come the opener, I want to be the guy back there...I can't lie. I want it to be me and I'm pushing to be that guy."
Hillman spent the majority of OTAs playing with the first-team offense, although Ball himself was given first-team reps and even had one-on-one instruction with Manning.
This should be a closely contested battle, and it will all depend upon what Denver wants out of its starting back—all three guys have their individual strengths and weaknesses.
Hillman is more of a home-run threat but lacks the size and pass-protection skills to be a full-time back.
Moreno is a versatile back who can pass block and catch the ball out of the backfield, but he averaged a mediocre 3.8 yards a carry in 2012.
Ball has proven that he can handle an intense workload: He carried 663 times in his final two seasons at Wisconsin. Still, as a rookie, he will have to prove in training camp that he's worthy of the full trust of the Bronco coaching staff.
Don't expect the competition to be settled until after the preseason is over.
Denver's Middle Linebacker Battle
Denver's weakest position on the roster—middle linebacker—will also be under competition during training camp.
There are four contenders for the Mike position—Nate Irving, Joe Mays, Steven Johnson and Stewart Bradley.
All four guys come from different backgrounds, and all arrived in Denver differently. Irving was a draft choice during John Fox's first year in Denver (2011) and has yet to start a game for the Broncos during his first two years in the NFL. He has made his contributions to the Broncos largely as a special teams player.
However, Irving is the favorite entering training camp to win the starting job.
Mays was Denver's starting middle linebacker entering 2012, even being rewarded with a contract extension before the season started, but he quickly fell out of favor due to injuries and subpar play. He is a candidate to be released before the season starts.
Johnson is a young linebacker who signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2012. He, like Irving, played on special teams in 2012. He remains a sleeper to win the starting job.
Bradley arrives as a free agent after stints with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. Bradley enters his seventh season. He has not been a starter since he was in Philadelphia (2010), and it remains to be seen what kind of impact he will have on the Broncos.
The position is up for grabs, but Irving has the inside track to win the job. Will Brinson of CBSSportsline.com had a lot of praise for Irving in his training camp preview of the Broncos:
The real story of Broncos middle linebacker Nate Irving dates back to his college days, when he overcame a slew of injuries suffered during a life-threatening car accident that cost him the 2009 season and managed to return back to the NC State lineup. Irving's going to get the first crack at winning the middle linebacker job in Denver, and I think you'll see him produce in a big way. Irving's a tackling machine with lateral speed and the ability to lay down devastating hits. Middle linebackers are becoming less and less important in today's passing game, but they're still necessary and Irving could provide a nice prototype for what the modern-day mike could look like. I expect a big year from him.
Although the Mike battle will be overshadowed by developments at the running back position, Bronco fans should keep a close eye on this competition—because the winner will be lining up in the middle of Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard come Sept. 5.
Will Peyton Manning Have a Better Season in 2013?
Peyton Manning had one of the best statistical seasons of his 14-year NFL career in 2012.
He threw for 37 touchdowns, 4,659 yards and accumulated a 105.8 passer rating—all of which were the second-best marks of his career.
After leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record in his first season back after four neck surgeries, Manning finished as a runner-up to Adrian Peterson for NFL MVP. It would have been Manning's fifth MVP award. He already holds the record with four.
It took one of the finest seasons in NFL history for Peterson—2,097 rushing yards and just nine yards shy of breaking the single-season record—to edge Manning for the award.
Now, Manning has a full season under his belt following his return from injury, and the Broncos have brought Wes Welker into the fold.
The Broncos enter 2013 with the easiest strength of schedule, along with playing in perhaps the weakest division in all of football: The other three teams AFC West teams finished below .500 in 2012.
Concerns about Manning's recovery from his neck issues dominated the offseason last year. This offseason, not so much. Wide receiver Eric Decker seems to agree with the notion that Manning's arm is stronger this year (Via Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com):
We worked out at Duke in March or April and I definitely feel like he had more zip on the ball...I think he’s come back stronger...I think some of those throws that he fits in the holes, you feel a little more zip on it and he is getting it to you quicker.
It will be hard to improve upon his 2012 numbers, but considering the improved supporting cast surrounding him, the apparently easier schedule and the full recovery from the serious neck injury that sidelined Manning for a whole year, if anybody can make it a reality, it's the four-time NFL MVP.
By the time the 2013 season is in the books, that four-time NFL MVP just may become a five-time NFL MVP.